Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Some thoughts on "What is Judaica?"

I’m going to try and clear up the issue of what is judaica, judaic art and jewish art.  This isn’t to presume that I have special knowledge, just that in my own mind I have a good idea what these items are and how I relate to them.  Lets start with the proverbial 500 pound canary, jewish art.  If we were to consider jewish art in the context of a venn diagram it would take up the whole page.  It is, no matter how you cut it, everything.  

I would certainly start any discussion of jewish art by including fine arts, those made by jews as well as that produced by non-jews but having a particularly jewish motif or theme.   To be “jewish art” there needs to be a nexus, whether through the artist or the material to the jewish experience.  Not all art, made by a jew should qualify as jewish art, nor should every depiction of an old testament scene, regardless of whether it was made by a jew or non-jew, be jewish art.  When I make a teapot I don’t think of that as a piece of jewish art, I think of it as a teapot.  When I make a kiddush cup, I think of that as a piece of jewish art. 

As part of the umbrella which is jewish art there are at least two significant subsets relevant to this discussion, judaic art and judiaca.

Judaic art includes representations of ritual, scripture, or specific jewish themes.  As illustration, we have two pieces by jewish artists in my home.  One is a Ben Shahn print of Psalm 133, the other is a Marc Chagall poster from the Tel Aviv Museum.  I would classify the former, the Ben Shahn print, as judaic art - it is a visual interpretation of scripture.  The later, the Chagall poster, falls into the umbrella world of jewish art as there are no specific judaic references.

Judaica is a small subset within jewish art and does overlap in a few instances with judaic art.  I believe that to be Judaica, the item must focus on ritual; it is the items that are touched, used, participate in the daily life of the jewish people.  It is things like kiddush cups, torah crowns, ketubahs, seder plates.  The Szyk haggadah and ketubahs are examples of objects that, if one were given to shoehorning items into classifications would fit into both judaica and judaic art.  It is important to remember that non-jews make judaica just as jews make liturgical art for churches.

Finally, a few words on craft.  When I left my prior occupation, the law, it was to do something with my hands, to make utilitarian objects.  This is different from an artist whose work focuses on the conveyance of an image and drives the viewer to consider the image and its import.  That’s not to say that craftspeople don’t convey messages, the difference lies, I believe, in the purpose of the work.  For me that purpose is the functional utility of the object.  That the object also conveys a message is secondary. 

 What both ties these areas together and separates them is the fact that, as a general rule, both the craftsperson and the artist have an underlying appreciation and knowledge/comprehension of the skills involved in creating the end product.  Painters, sculptors knew and know the mechanics of their art, how to paint, ways to depict light, the nature of pigments.   That is little different than my knowledge of how silver responds to heat or how much I can push metals’ tensile parameters.

The history of judaica and the adornment of ritual objects starts with Exodus.  The role of precious materials and prescribed usages for the enhancement of the worship service has its origins in Exodus 25 where Moses calls upon the Israelites to make voluntary offerings of gold, silver, threads, stones, skins, incense for use in the tabernacle, the ark, candlesticks and so on.  I want to emphasize that this was a voluntary asking, not a levy (Ex. XXV.20).  Later Moses tells the Israelites that Bezalel a man filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, understanding, knowledge and workmanship will be in charge.  Bezalel and his assistant Oholiab oversaw the constructions that followed.  Exodus (ch XXVI-XXVIII) goes into great detail over the size, materials and manner of construction for these items.

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